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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 17:05 GMT
Rafah: Symbol of Gaza's isolation
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Rafah crossing 23 January 2008
Thousands of Palestinians took advantage of the border breach
The mass breach of the Rafah crossing point illustrates many of the problems and pitfalls of Middle East peace-making.

In recent times it was hoped Rafah would become a symbol of a new beginning for the Gaza Strip.

What began as a European-monitored crossing with aspirations to become a permanently open link between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has in practice become, for many Palestinians, yet another symbol of their isolation and "imprisonment".

The Rafah crossing point is located on the edge of the dusty town of that name on the south-western boundary of the Gaza Strip.

It sits on the border between Palestinian territory and Egypt. Its operations are governed by an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority reached in November 2005, in the wake of the "disengagement" or withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the territory.

Its workings were to be monitored by a European Union Assistance Mission. But this is all, in many ways, academic, since the Rafah crossing point has been closed ever since the Hamas take-over of the Gaza Strip in June of last year.

The EU's involvement was critical in ensuring that the Israel-Palestinian agreement on security measures at the crossing was implemented in full. Initially open for five hours a day, the hope was that eventually this would become a 24-hour operation.

EU waiting

Boy at Rafah crossing 10 July 2007
The Rafah crossing remains a closed gate on Palestinian aspirations
In June 2006, the crossing was closed as Israeli troops mounted their first major operation into Gaza since the disengagement - a response, the Israelis said, both to the seizure of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants and rocket fire into southern Israel. It was not opened again for some two months.

It remained largely shut until operations were totally suspended following the Hamas seizure of power.

Initially, EU monitors sought safety as the internal Palestinian fighting erupted. They have never gone back to their posts.

But an EU spokeswoman insists that its staff remain in the region ready to re-open the crossing when circumstances permit.

Egyptian nerves

The Rafah crossing remains a closed gate on Palestinian aspirations. Its future is mired in politics - that between Israel and the Palestinians, between the Palestinian factions themselves and between Egypt and Israel.

For Israel, the crossing points are seen almost entirely through a security prism - as a means of bringing pressure to bear on the Hamas leadership (though quite how the mechanics of this pressure might work in practice is far from clear).

Critics insist that the only consequence of the growing isolation of the Gaza Strip is the creation of collective suffering and a pressure cooker of discontent which, one day, may explode.

That is why the Egyptians are so nervous. Indeed, Cairo has its own reasons for monitoring and controlling access to and from the Gaza Strip.

Cairo is walking a fine line between maintaining a relationship with Israel - alleviating the suffering and isolation in the territory while fearful of the spread of the ideological influence of Hamas amongst closely-related movements inside Egypt itself.

Gaza map

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